Dignity Part 1: Securing the bedrock

Are we building common ground, reaching for higher ground or securing the bedrock?

We’ve all learned so much this year about ourselves and each other. About the challenges we’ve shared and about the ways in which our experiences and perspectives are unique. Confronted by risk, illness and death – and with our part in their proliferation and prevention – we’ve faced what it means to be human.

It’s been a year of unique challenge for those of us who work to bring out the best in individuals, teams and leaders. What are we here for? Is our role to build common ground – to heal division and forge connection between diverse viewpoints and experiences? Or is it to point to the higher ground – to celebrate and respect achievement, effort, capability and performance in the face of adversity?

My reflection and reading reminded me that our work to secure dignity – our own and others’ – is fundamental to everything else we do. Dignity is the bedrock. And although it is not in our gift, its protection is. 

When dignity crumbles

Mark was promoted to the executive. He had been recognised for his huge contribution, his technical expertise, his leadership of his team, his influence in the marketplace, his ability to navigate change and tolerate uncertainty. And yet, at his first executive committee meeting he found himself holding back. He doubted his contribution. He was concerned that what he had to say was of less value than others. In the face of internal competition, as he saw it, his mind was overwhelmed by the feeling that he didn’t belong here. The problem unfolding was that Mark did not honour his own dignity – his inherent worth and value.

Sally was frustrated. Her team members seemed reluctant to contribute their ideas. They seemed slow to respond to the changes she outlined – changes that needed to take place if they were going to accomplish their 5-year plan for double-digit growth. But her passion for the business manifested itself in stubborn expectation. She hogged the airtime in meetings, often interrupting others. Her sense of urgency blocked others’ thoughts, stifling their creativity. Her desire for her team members to think like her reduced the flow of new ideas and different ways of being. Instead of the enthusiasm and engagement she hoped for, her team members felt solemn and stuck. The problem unfolding was that Sally, inadvertently, failed to honour their dignity – their inherent worth and value.

Humanity – the bedrock of our dignity

Let’s be clear what we mean by dignity. It is a word that we associate with human rights, we see in religious declarations and we include in organisational policy. We talk about treating others with dignity and respect. These two words seem almost joined at the hip. We hear them spoken together so often. We read them as if they were hyphenated. But they each have their own weight.

So let’s go back to the Universal Declaration of Human RightsArticle 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Our dignity is derived solely from our humanity. Not our race, sex or gender. Not our class, religion or abilities. Not any characteristic other than being human. We are born with dignity; it is our birthright.

Respect is something we earn through the way we behave. The commitments we make. The work we do. The qualities we demonstrate. The way we treat others. Our readiness to be accountable. Our willingness to be wrong. We reinforce our relationships through the respect we earn and show to each other. Respect is the scaffolding. Dignity is the solid, unconditional bedrock that is neither earned nor given. It just is.

How can we secure others’ dignity as well as our own?

My thoughts on dignity are inspired by Donna Hicks’ work and writing. Through many years convening dialogue for parties in conflict situations, she witnessed the distinctions between public discourses and the conversations that happen ‘under the table’. And she observed the part that dignity plays in these deeper, emotional exchanges. She noticed that breakthroughs in conflict resolution were secured not through the intellect, creativity and commitment of the parties involved, but through their willingness to address violations of each other’s human dignity.

Hicks’ work eloquently reinforces the basic but fundamental thought that dignity is our inherent value and worth. And she takes this thought further. Just as we are equal in dignity, we are equal in our vulnerability. When our dignity is violated we harden, building armour to shield our vulnerability, preparing to retreat or to fight back. We are equally vulnerable in our need for dignity.

As leaders, coaches, teachers, how do we respond to this need? Our job is not to give dignity to others – they already have it. Our job is to secure it – in ourselves and each other. So how can we do this?

In my experience, coaching individuals and leadership teams, creating a Thinking Environment is one of the most dignifying ways of being with another. I was reminded of this recently by a CEO. When I asked what he found most valuable about our leadership awayday he replied: “It was less about the content you had us think about Jane, rather how you made us all feel. The way you encouraged us to discover more about each other and helped us connect in ways we had not before. That was the most valuable.” For me, this reflected not only how the team members dignified themselves, but the dignity they upheld in each other as well.

As I look for ways to encourage the honouring of dignity, here’s what I am learning so far:

Hold the sense of equality. Practise the belief that we all have the equal capacity to think for ourselves, as ourselves, irrespective of gender, age, religion, experience. Share our thoughts and ideas with integrity.

For Mark, holding the sense of his equality was liberating. He began to acknowledge that his contribution, based upon his experience, was different and added to the discussion in ways others had not expected. Mark began to honour his own dignity.

Be at ease yourself and, in doing so, put others at ease. When you free yourself from internal rush and urgency, people think and perform better around you. Asking others for their thoughts – “What do YOU think?” – while being at ease and showing a real interest dignifies them. It says: “You matter.” In contrast, an irritating constant head nod or “uh-huh… uh-huh…” suggesting “Will you hurry up, I have something to say” has the opposite effect.

For Sally, this was a powerful insight into the impact of her behaviour. Her rush signalled ‘I-am-not-interested.’ Her rush signalled ‘no-time-for-your-thoughts.’ Her newfound ease signalled ‘I value your contribution.’

Listen to others free from interruption and judgement. Listening with generative attention is a creative force. When we interrupt someone, their brain receives it as an assault. Their thinking is hijacked. The message we send is “What I am about to say is of more value than what you are about to think.” A violation of dignity, right there, right then. Rather, when we honour a promise not to interrupt we dignify the other.

One of the most common behaviours I see in meetings is interruption. The same 30% of participants contributing 70% of the time, often speaking over each other to get their voices heard. When the meeting has collapsed to this state, I guarantee you’ve missed out. Missed out on the value and contribution that emerges when you make sure that everyone has participated. By including everyone in meetings, holding rounds and inviting people to share succinctly and specifically, we can honour the dignity of everyone present.

Celebrate the difference we bring as human beings and honour the ways in which we are the same. Being human holds that paradox ‘I am not like you; I am just like you’, beautifully explored by Nancy Kline in her recent book The Promise that Changes Everything – I Won’t Interrupt You. When we truly recognise that every human being is unique, and encourage their difference in every encounter and every conversation, we honour others’ dignity. Equally when we recognise the difference in ourselves, rather than fall into the trap of conforming to what others want us to think or say, we honour our own dignity.

For Sally this was liberating. She recognised that, as the leader, she didn’t need to know all the answers. She could let go of the assumption that others had to be just like her to accomplish their goals. She could invite her team members’ contributions and accept them for their difference. A different perspective. A different strategy. A different approach. 

In the public domain, a powerful example of celebrating difference and honouring the dignity of another was the extraordinary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. An unlikely friendship emerged between her and Justice Antonin Scalia. At opposite ends of the political spectrum, they seldom agreed on important questions that reached the court. Yet they acknowledged and celebrated their difference to enjoy a deep friendship together and companionship between their families. 

Appreciate the qualities we see in others. Notice what is good about someone and tell them. Notice what is right with the world and share it. It seems appreciation stabilises the heart and stimulates thinking. In fact, when we embody all ten components of a Thinking Environment, it stimulates the heart to establish a healthy rhythm and pattern. According to The HeartMath Research Centre in California, the signals generated by our heart rhythm, and their interaction with our brain signals, can improve the order and harmony in our mind, emotions and body. Of equal importance, when we practice a 5:1 ratio of appreciation to challenge, our relationships deepen and strengthen. Our dignity for each other is present.

“Whenever we honour someone’s dignity, we strengthen our own.” Donna Hicks, Declaration of Dignity.

My hope is that we discover and rediscover how to honour our own dignity and that of others. My belief is that, in so doing, we can generate environments where others know that who they are and what they think matters. One of the best organisational examples I have witnessed in honouring people and their dignity in harmony with developing a strong business model is Barry-Wehmiller under the guidance of CEO, Bob Chapman and his leadership team through their culture of Truly Human Leadership. By looking for ways to honour our innate dignity, we encourage ourselves and others to nurture unique gifts and talents, and to live a fulfilled life at home, at work and in community with others.

But it’s not easy. It takes thought, care and practice. If you have time and space over the holidays to read more, I highly recommend Dignity and Leading with Dignity by Donna Hicks. And look out for Part 2 of my thinking on dignity in the New Year.

Thanks for reading!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you. If you think it will resonate for others, please pass it on.

Photo by Laura Colquitt on Unsplash

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